Leaving behind Laura Esquivel’s Mexico, my Booktrotting journey now crosses the continental border into South America – starting with the war-torn rural Colombia of Evelio Rosero’s The Armies.
In a small town in the mountains of Colombia, Ismael, a retired teacher, discovers one morning that his wife has disappeared, and not-so-distant gunfire signals the approach of war.
This is, without any exaggeration, one of the most astonishing novels I’ve ever read. I wish I could just upload human emotions to this blog, because even after two days of digesting The Armies I’m still struggling to find any rational way of talking about it. In terms of my Booktrotting agenda, it was perfect: it’s an absolutely harrowing insight into life amidst the Colombian civil war that’s stark and relentless in its brutality yet tellingly fleeting in detail. But The Armies is so much more than just a war novel – it’s a simple human story of grief, of what it is to lose not only your loved ones and your home, but your very sense of self.
Living as I do in the comfort of the English West Country, I couldn’t even begin to imagine a life spent under the shadow of Colombia’s half-century of violence, but for Evelio Rosero’s characters that life seems to be one of denial. The war barely warrants a mention in the early chapters of the book, which instead opens with a picturesque scene of Ismael Pasos picking oranges in his garden and listening to his neighbour play guitar next door:
And this is how it was: at the Brazilian’s house the macaws laughed all the time; I heard them from the top of my garden wall, when I was up the ladder, picking my oranges; now and again I sensed the three cats behind me watching from high up in the almond trees. Further back, my wife fed the fish in the pond: this is how we grew old, she and I, the fish and the cats.
His neighbour’s wife sunbathes naked on the patio, her children play by the pool, and Rosero’s writing focuses sensually on the taste of a fresh orange or the sound of laughter “like a flock of doves exploding at the edge of the wall”. The first real mention of any violence comes with a little exposition regarding Gracielita, a child orphaned by an attack on the town church, but even then Rosero – via Ismael – moves on as soon as possible to talk about her future rather than her past.
Part of this c’est la vie denial stems from the narrator’s age: it’s unclear when The Armies is set, but in his seventies Ismael is old enough to know Colombia before the conflict, and is clearly unable to reconcile that past with the new, violent present. He clings with everything he can to his rapidly deserting youth, refusing to use a walking stick or have someone younger help pick his oranges; he even lusts vainly after every young woman he meets, as if by tapping into the thoughts and feelings of his younger self he can return to that simpler, golden past.
In that way, it’s hardly a stretch to say Ismael is a metaphor for Colombia itself: as the novel progresses, his loss of his youth, his wife, his memory and eventually his identity sounds very much like the deterioration of a country at war with itself. But at the same time, The Armies seems to hold more power if left as it appears to be, as a simple tale of a man fighting the passage of time. It’s the sort of theme you’d find Virginia Woolf at home with, and though Rosero doesn’t go so far as to use her favoured stream-of-consciousness technique, Ismael’s first-person present tense narrative is immersive to the point of heartbreaking. It’s a painful novel, it’s a wearying novel, and in its own way that makes it a beautiful novel; never before have I read something that felt so true to my own personal experience of grief.
As far as I am aware, The Armies is the only one of Evelio Rosero’s works to be translated into English; but if the rest of his novels are as good as this, I would gladly learn Spanish just to read them.
Continuing on through South America, my next stop takes me to Brazil as soon through the lens of Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue.